Getting Off the Beaten Path
One of the questions I’m often asked is, “How do I find the really cool places and experiences that may not be in the guidebook?” If you’re somewhere brand new, this can take many different forms, from restaurants where the locals eat to small community markets and events. Here are my top ways to venture off the beaten path and start getting closer to what life looks like for the locals, wherever you find yourself.
Get Away from the Tourist Traps
I’m going to start with a disclaimer. USE YOUR COMMON SENSE! It’s your best guide for keeping you out of trouble and sketchy situations. If an area looks or feels questionable, then don’t go! Okay, now onto the good stuff.
If you’ve chosen a place to visit, chances are you’re not alone. Even in places that aren’t super popular tourist destinations yet, you’ll still find areas that draws the majority of visitors. All you have to do is get off this main track, usually only a couple blocks, to start finding places that aren’t crowded with other travelers. For example, two of my favorite restaurants in Prague are less than two blocks from some of the biggest attractions in the city, but when I visited there weren’t any other English-speakers in the restaurant!
As a side benefit, once you get off the main tourist track, prices drop dramatically! In these same restaurants I could get my favorite meal of goulash and dumplings for nearly half the price of what restaurants on the main drag were offering. This means more eating for this girl, which is my favorite way to experience a new place! 😉
Ask the Locals
I wish I had a list of all the amazing places I’ve discovered over the years, simply by talking to the people locals I encounter as I travel! Talk to your servers, the staff at your accommodations, shopkeepers, etc. What I’ve found is that most people are happy to share more about their city and country with you. Many times they’re even surprised and excited that you care or want to know!
For my six-week solo trip through the Balkans, I didn’t plan where I was going in advance, other than Prague, where I started and ended. I left my route up to recommendations from the locals and other travelers I interacted with. There’s absolutely no way I would have found many of the amazing places without their knowledge!
Just last summer, my husband and I found ourselves at Mons Klint in Denmark, thanks to the recommendation of the agent when we picked up our rental car. There was only a short paragraph about it in the guidebook, and we never would have chosen it based on that tiny bit of information.The manager of the campground even asked how we found out about it because they don’t get many American tourists!
I know that sometimes talking to strangers can be intimidating, so a great place to start is at restaurants, pubs, and your accommodation. You’re going to interact with these individuals anyway, so just ask what else they would recommend for you to see in the area. If you’re polite and kind, you’ll receive the same in return. 🙂
If you hear music coming from somewhere around the corner, go find it! If you’re travelling during high season, which is usually when the weather is best in an area, you’ll find the locals will be out and about as well. You may come across markets, street fairs, festivals, or concerts. Simply being open to exploring and discovering whatever presents itself is a sure-fire way to get some local awesomeness!
When you’re so focused on your own plans and itinerary, you may walk right by something that could provide an afternoon of entertainment or additional perspective about the place you chose to visit. This is why I like to leave a fair amount of time in my travels unplanned. Obviously, if you’ve chosen a destination, it’s because there are things you want to see there, and you should be sure you do because they’re on your list for a reason! Try planning to see just one or two of these places every day, and leave the rest of the time is open for whatever amazing things present themselves.
These are a few of the main reasons why I prefer independent travel to a structured tour group. I want the time and freedom to explore, rather than being shuttled from place to place on someone else’s timeline. That being said, I do enjoy taking local tours while I’m visiting somewhere new.
Free walking tours are a great way to get your bearings and learn more about your destination. I try to plan these for the morning after I arrive. This allows me to get an idea of what I want to see more of and there’s always information you can’t find in a guidebook! When the tours are given by locals, you get a much better sense of the history and perspective the sights have for the people who live there.